“You got anybody special waiting for you on the outside?”
Jesse Calloway froze with his battered old Timex, the only surviving remnant from his good-for-nothing father, half-strapped onto his wrist.
Immediately the image of Flynn MacGregor, looking the way she’d looked the last time he’d seen her, peppered his mind. Wearing that pink dress that made her shine like a springtime tulip. Her soft light brown hair curling to her feisty shoulders, hands clutched into tight fists, bottom lip caught up between her teeth, her hazel eyes wide in stunned disbelief as Sheriff Clinton Trainer had handcuffed him and stuffed him into the backseat of his patrol car.
Slowly, he stabbed the strap of the Timex through the loop, completing the cinch, the weight of it unexpectedly heavy against his wrist after all these years. The watch had stopped. Ironic when you thought about it. Stopped watch, stopped life. He wound the stem, and then looked up to meet Warden Neusbaum’s eyes.
“No,” he said. “There’s no one.”
The warden nodded as if the answer did not surprise him and passed Jesse the new, but cheaply made suit and lace-up dress shoes supplied by the state of Texas. In the pen they not only stripped you of lace-ups, but of your entire identity. For ten years he’d been nothing but a number. Now he was supposed to go out into society and became Jesse Calloway again. How was he going to do that? He’d spent his entire adult life behind bars. Framed and incarcerated for a crime he hadn’t committed.
Resentment tasted brackish as burnt coffee beans on the back of his tongue, but he shook off the emotion. No sense getting pissed off. What was done was done. After all, revenge was a dish best served cold and he’d been in a deep freeze for a very long time.
“For what it’s worth,” Warden Neusbaum paused and shifted his bulk, clearly uncomfortable with what he was about to say next. “I’m gonna miss you. You’ve been an exemplary inmate and what you did for that boy…”
Jesse took a deep breath, inhaled the institutionalized smell of fear, testosterone, blood, body odor, Lysol and badly prepared meals. The haunting smell was routine now, but he could still remember the way it had hit him the first time those cell doors had clanked closed behind him. The same way it must have hit Josh Green. In prison, empathy was a stupid thing and it had almost gotten him killed.
He shrugged. “Yeah, well, you know.”
“Don’t shrug it off. You put your own life in grave peril to save that boy and you stopped a prison riot.”
“Don’t go makin’ a hero out of me, Warden. I was just bucking for an early release.” Jesse flashed the grin that had once worked so well at charming the panties off young women.
“Well, you did something right for once. The kid’s alive and you got two years shaved off your sentence. Now for the standard speech. Good luck out there and don’t ever let me catch your ass back in here again.”
Jesse clenched his jaw. “That it?”
“Since you’ve got no folks coming to fetch you, a guard will put you on a bus and give you instructions about contacting your parole officer.” Neusbaum nodded toward the bathroom adjacent to his office. “You’ve earned the right to some privacy. Go get dressed.”
Jesse picked up the suit and shoes and headed toward the bathroom, not sure what he was feeling. He supposed he should have been excited. Today, he would walk away from Huntsville prison a free man. But his emotions were complex.
Hollowness carved out a hole in his brain. Regret slithered along his spine. Anxiety swirled through his every breath. Resolve crouched on his shoulders. Revenge burned his gut.
But in his heart…in his damnable heart…he felt hope. And that’s where trouble boiled.
As much as he wanted revenge to matter more, it didn’t. Sure, he wanted to get even with Beau Trainer. Certainly, he ached to mete out real justice. Yes, he itched to expose the new sheriff of Twilight, Texas for the fraud he was. But underneath it all, he wanted Flynn more.
According to Jesse’s Aunt Patsy, Beau had asked Flynn to marry him four times, but she turned him down even as she kept dating him. Jesse ground his teeth. Why? Could it be that some small part of her that still harbored feelings for him?
Even after ten years? Even after he’d been to prison? Fat chance of that.
Yet the hope flickered.
Hope. What a stupid, dangerous thing.
Jesse shook off the rough cotton prison jumpsuit, letting it drop to the cement floor and stepped into the ill-fitting Wal-mart suit. Not much of an improvement, but at least he looked like a human being again. Goodbye prisoner number 87757310.
Once dressed, he kicked off the slip-ons, sat down on a bench and jammed his feet into the new shoes. It had been ten years since he’d done up laces and he wondered if he’d forgotten how to tie his own shoes.
He raised his right leg up to the bench. The laces felt thick and clumsy in his fingers. Freedom was within his grasp. The flavor of it was on his tongue and it tasted like Flynn. Sweet with just the right amount of underlying tartness, juicy, warm and welcoming.
There was that hope again.
Jesse tried to crush it. Reminded himself that she’d been sleeping with his mortal enemy, but he couldn’t manage to sum up any anger toward her. He reserved that for Trainer. All he really wanted was to see Flynn again.
What if she doesn’t want to see you?
She probably didn’t. If he were smart, he would forget all about her. But if he were smart, he wouldn’t have landed in here in the first place. He looped the laces, pulled them tight, his fingers regaining their memory.
Flynn. The woman he’d dreamed about every night. The image of her smiling face had saved his sanity inside these prison walls.
He tugged the knot, making sure it held secure. He was breathing heavily now. Hope fluttered around in his heart like some damned butterfly. Christ, he was acting like a schoolgirl.
Had he completely fabricated the feelings they’d had for each other? Had it all been in his head, lopsided and pathetic? Doubt smashed the butterflies. Fear kicked hope in the teeth. Who was he kidding? He wasn’t good enough for her. He’d known it then and nothing had changed.
Yet she hadn’t married Trainer. Why not?
“Calloway,” Neusbaum called to him.
Jesse stood up and looked down at his perfectly bound shoelaces. New beginning. New start. He opened the door and stepped back into the warden’s office.
“Guard’s here to escort you to the bus.”
The guard waited for him in the hallway. Neusbaum clasped Jesse’s hand, told him goodbye.
Unshackled for the first time in ten years, Jesse followed the guard out into the light.
“Where you headed?” the guard asked. “Home?”
“I’ve got no home,” Jesse said. “Never have, never will.”
“I gotta know where you’re going. For the bus ticket.”
“I’m headed for Twilight.”
“Twilight?” The guard looked confused.
“Twilight,” he confirmed. “It’s a town, outside Fort Worth.”
“What’s in Twilight? A job? A woman?”
“A wrong that needs righting.”
“Hey,” the guard said, “don’t do anything to send your ass back here. That’d be stupid.”
Stupid it might be, but Jesse didn’t care. His plan had been ten long years in the making. He was going back to the town where it all began. Back to even the score with the man who’d ruined his life. Back to collect the justice that he’d been denied.
Back to claim the woman who should have been his.